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America, it seems, let out a sigh of relief on Tuesday evening when a jury in Minneapolis found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on three counts of murder and manslaughter for the death of George Floyd.
After the verdict, there was talk of justice and accountability. Finally, many said, a bad police officer was being punished for his action. For others, the sight of a white officer being led out of a courtroom in handcuffs after being found guilty of murdering an unarmed black man was a sign that a new era of police reform has begun.
But, what does it say about our country and our culture that many Americans watched Judge Peter Cahill deliver the verdict with trepidation? Why were so many worried that despite a video showing Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for an agonizing nine minutes and 29 seconds that the former police officer would not be found guilty?
It is because we have been here many times before. Black men shot in the back. Black men shot while sitting in their cars. Police storming into the wrong apartment and shooting a young black woman. In many of these instances, no charges were brought against the police officers involved. When charges have been brought, juries have frequently found officers not guilty.
There is no official database of officer misconduct or the consequences for such action, so the work of compiling this information falls to researchers and journalists. One such researcher is Philip M. Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University. According to his database, only five officers have been convicted of murder while on duty since 2005 and 11 have been convicted of manslaughter, although police are documented to fatally shoot about 1,000 Americans a year. Black Americans, particularly young men, are more than twice as likely to be killed by police than white Americans.
The case against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was unusual. The entire encounter with George Floyd was caught on video, a mixture of police body cam images and videos shot by bystanders. We saw Chauvin’s emotionless expression during the nine minutes and 29 seconds that he kept his knees pressed to Floyd’s neck while Floyd lay facedown on the ground. We heard Floyd plead that he can’t breathe. We saw the other three officers fail to stop Chauvin or to help Floyd.
Because of the video — and teenager Darnella Frazier who filmed it on her cellphone — there were few questions about what happened after police were called, all because Floyd allegedly used a suspected counterfeit $20 bill at a corner grocery store.
As prosecutors told the jury, the facts of the case were plain for them to see.
“You can believe your eyes, ladies and gentlemen,” Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell told the jury during closing arguments. “It was what you thought it was. It was what you saw. It was homicide.”
Ultimately, all nine jurors agreed.
This verdict should accelerate and broaden the move toward more accountability for police officers. As we’ve noted numerous times, many officers have been asked to take on societal problems well beyond the scope of law enforcement, such as addiction, mental health and dispute resolution. Many are underpaid and underappreciated. However, there is a troubling pattern of police brutality, particularly directed at black Americans.
Chauvin’s conviction — and the condemnation of his actions from fellow law enforcement officials — should accelerate the move toward more police accountability and, where necessary, changes in policies and practices.
“Today’s verdict concludes a criminal trial, but the work of doing justice for George Floyd doesn’t end today. My hope for all of us in criminal justice roles is that we rise to this moment, and learn the lessons that history has frankly been trying to teach us for decades,” San Francisco Police Chief William Scott said on Twitter.
“Those of us entrusted with the responsibility of law enforcement must build trust where we have it, restore trust where we’ve lost it, and earn trust even where we’ve never had it,” he added. “That’s our challenge as 21st century police officers. And that will be the best justice we can offer for the families and loved ones and communities of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and numberless others.”
A clearly guilty former officer being found guilty should not have been a surprise. But perhaps this trial and this verdict will lead to needed reforms to build trust in a system that has too often failed to treat everyone equally.